“Superstition Ain’t The Way”

Medicine in this country is fairly evidence based, with a few exceptions usually presented in the name of “patient choice” (such as homoeopathy, chiropractic, and acupuncture being offered on the NHS). Healthcare professionals are expected as part of our ongoing clinical and academic development to keep informed on the best current practices within our field. Despite this general approach, hospitals (specifically A&E departments) can be incredibly superstitious places. In this post I’d like to cover (and maybe debunk) some of the superstitious behaviour that I have noticed.

Bark at the Moon
There’s a widely held belief that a full moon affects human behaviour, more specifically that it causes people to go crazy, thus making A&E departments (and police stations) busier than they would normally be at any other time of the month. People give various reasons for this, everything from the vaguely believeable (full moon = more light at night, therefore people stay out later and get up to mischief) to the completely bizarre (our bodies are made of 70% water, therefore if the moon has an effect on the seas, it must have an effect on us). This myth is so prevalent that it has been studied by academics to discover if there is any truth to it, and repeatedly it has been disproven. Nevertheless, once a month, a chaotic resus department will be blamed on the moon.

The “Q” Word
If they’re not pointing the finger at celestial bodies, A&E staff like to blame a sudden influx of patients on someone, somewhere uttering (or thinking about) the “Q word”. This one has got me in trouble a few times, as until recently I was wilfully ignorant of such superstition, so I once merrily wandered into majors and declared “corr it’s quiet in here tonight!” only to be practically mobbed by the nurses who were happily enjoying their rare minutes of downtime. On a recent night there were about four very drunk, quite rowdy patients in resus, and by 1am they had all either been discharged or fallen asleep; I went round to do a chest x-ray on a stroke patient and remarked to the doctor in charge that “it’s a lot quieter in here now!” referring to the volume rather than the workload. He shot me a look that pierced my soul and walked away. I was suitably embarassed.

The funny thing with this particular superstition is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if it’s got to the point that it is so quiet that it’s worth remarking on, regression to the mean dictates that the situation will probably change soon, regardless of the language used in the department. I’m desperate to ask one of the A&E consultants if they genuinely believe that words uttered in resus can cause a major trauma 4 miles away… I’m not that brave though.

Lucky Number 12b
This isn’t a universal thing by any means, not every hospital adheres to this superstition, in fact, not every ward within a hospital observes it, but in Trogdor’s Majors A&E there is no cubicle 13. There’s 11, 12, 12b, and 14. However most of the actual inpatient wards do have a bed 13, so maybe it’s just an A&E thing. On a related but separate note, clinicians have been known to close an A&E bay if it appears particularly unlucky; on a recent night shift, 4 consecutive patients who were admitted to resus bay 2 died. The first was a cardiac arrest (who was unlikely to have survived as they had had multiple arrests before the paramedics arrived), one was a major trauma who had severe blood loss, another was a stroke, and the last was admitted with sepsis and neurological instability. Plainly, there was nothing wrong with the bay itself to cause these deaths (that would trigger a profoundly serious investigation) but such was the bad feeling about it that it went unused for a couple of hours until the other bays were all full. I don’t think anyone else passed away for the rest of that shift- maybe the trauma gods were satisfied? Who knows.

“Bad Nights” and “Good Nights”
I think that in the US these are called “black clouds” and “white clouds”, but they mean the same thing; certain people get branded as having “bad” night shifts, or “good” night shifts. I’ll be looking at the rota, and someone will say something like “oooh, you’re with Dave, he has really bad night shifts”, which is always helpful. Some people will even go to the extremes of swapping shifts to avoid working with certain people (although they might be using it as an excuse!). I can’t help thinking that this has more to do with how much the person moans about how horrible their shift was, as the people I know that have a reputation for “good” shifts have actually had some hideous ones, they just keep their mouths shut about it.

That’s all I can think of for now, but if you’ve encountered any peculiar superstitions within the medical field, feel free to share them in the comments!

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